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MCG, a Chicana feminist, for sure, teaches community college English

Monday, October 8, 2012

First Dance

         At twelve, school dances were an awkward way to spend two hours. I spent most of them sitting on a cold metal chair around the perimeter of the cafeteria, waiting for someone to ask me to slow dance to “Theme From Greatest American Hero," or waiting to hear The Police. Still dances were better than sitting home with my brother and sister, while my mom got stoned and her live-in boyfriend Danny drank beer and watched TV.
My first dance ever was by far the worst. My best friend Amelie and her mom had gone to live in Carson City, so I had no one to dance or sing along with to our favorite songs like, "Hit Me with Your Best Shot," or "Jessie's Girl," by Rick Springfield. And no one really danced. Some kids stood around in small clumps, or sat around the perimeter, waiting for some kind of sign telling them what to do. The cafeteria looked different: big and sort of empty.  The long lunch tables on wheels that folded in half upright were stowed away at one side of the room and the lunch counter was covered by its sliding cold metal shade.
         As he always did, along with one seventh and one eighth grade teacher, Mr. Lark chaperoned the dance. While uncomfortable in my hand-sewn dress, I always felt safe around Mr. Lark, the school's double-duty music teacher and vice-principal. I had been one of his admirers since second grade when he gave me the solo in the Christmas program, and I had since learned to play the flute under his tutelage then joined the elementary school band.
When I was first learning to play the flute, Mr. Lark pulled me out of class once a week for a private lesson in a small room off of the cafeteria in which sat only two chairs, a music stand, and sheet music. Being raised by a single mom, Mr. Lark, was for many years, the only man in my life. I practiced the flute everyday for at least fifteen minutes, as he suggested, because I loved music, but also because I wanted to hear Mr. Lark say how much I had improved on "Merrily We Roll Along," which, to his delight, I had recognized as "Mary Had A Little Lamb." When I asked, he told me that "Mary Had A Little Lamb" had been renamed "Merrily We Roll Along" because the publishers thought we might feel childish playing a song they sang over and over again in nursery school. Like we wouldn't notice. I sure noticed “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the alphabet song. Those were kind of the same too.  When I mentioned these other songs, Mr. Lark smiled and said that I had a good ear.
         Before seventh grade dances, our K-8 "socialized" boys and girls in PE by implementing the infamous square dancing unit -- only to be outdone by the Chicken Fat record we exercised to on rainy days. While I liked boys a great deal and had already been kissed, I didn't especially like holding sweaty boy hands. I would have rather been playing music instead of dancing to it, or waiting for some boy with sweaty hands to ask me to dance or not ask. After the first dance of the year, us girls realized we could simply dance together to our favorite songs, rather than waiting for Ian Dresner or Brett Harding to ask us. Noel Lark, Mr. Lark's younger daughter, would often lead the girls to the floor in a flurry of wild dance moves -- she didn't seem to care at all that her dad was there watching.
         This night, I sat waiting on a metal chair, with a couple of other girls who weren't dancing, thinking I shouldn't have worn the stiff purple dress that my mother had spent several days making for me, hunched over her sewing machine. It had a stiff, floral, quilted belt that never lay quite right. It was already getting late, and I hadn't really danced at all. I had watched others slow dance, spotting horny eighth graders about to get too close, expecting Mr. Lark, Mr. Roundell, or Ms. Martz to tap them on the shoulder and a make a "separate" command with their hands. I only got up from my chair once and it was to walk to the refreshment table. I had a cup of punch served by someone’s mom and wandered back to my seat glad to be up at least walking in time with the music.

         The dance ended at 9:00 PM sharp, and before I left the house that night, I made my mother promise she'd be in the lot waiting for me when the dance got out. Since I had no reason to hang around once the dance was over, I made my way to the parking lot in my stiff dress.
         She wasn't there.
         Trying not to appear too concerned, I sat down on the cement wall, just off the half-circle drop off zone in front of the school. I watched as the Twain Harte and Ponderosa Hills kids got into their parents' over-sized, newer model, sedans, usually American made. The hills kids always seemed to get picked up first. A few eighth graders who lived between one and three blocks from the school, slowly made their way home on foot, savoring their last moments of freedom, reliving their favorite moments of the dance. I strained my ears to see if I could hear who they were talking about. All the while, I kept my eyes on the parking lot, trying to match the headlights on the car coming my way with the shape of the headlights on my mother's 70's model Nova. The town kids’ parents' cars were easy to spot. They were loud, usually with a bad muffler, or strange pinging sounds coming from the engines, and maybe even a whiskey burn on the side. I was getting pretty huffy after about the fifteenth car -- my mom had promised to be there right at 9:00, to arrive just as the dance had ended. It's not like she was doing anything important. She probably wasn't doing anything at all. I could feel the angry red flush spread from my cheeks to my ears. I squeezed my eyes closed to shut off the throbbing behind them. I didn't know what I was waiting for.
         "Michelle," I heard Mr. Lark's voice coming down the walk behind me, "your still waiting for your mom?"
         He was on his way home. There was no one else around -- no cars had pulled into the school’s loading zone for several minutes. It was probably 9:30.
         "Yeah, I'm still waiting," I said trying to sound hopeful and confident, only my voiced thinned and trailed off at the end of the sentence.
         I wondered if Mr. Lark wanted to look over at his house, which was practically across the street from the school. I had watched Noel walk home by herself ahead of her dad who was still busy with his vice-principal duties. She had stopped and waved and did silly dance moves until she had to cross the street. In his music teacher role, Mr. Lark was silly and irreverent; Noel had certainly inherited his personality. Mrs. Lark who I didn't see often even though she lived just across the street was an elegant woman, known for being beautiful and selling Avon. I knew some people in town thought she was stuck up, but I had seen her smile at Mr. Lark in a sweet shy way a couple of times. I thought that was nice.
         "I could call someone," Mr. Lark offered, now standing beside me watching the parking lot as I had been.
         "Um, you don't need to do," I said, "She'll be here any minute, " as I said this I thought of the previous summer while camping when we saw Mr. Lark and the kids. They had a campsite near ours, and my mom and her friends from town, who also knew Mr. Lark, invited him over to stand around our campfire. My mom was giggling with her girlfriend. They had just smoked a joint in the bushes, and the smell lingered in the air.
         "I told her not to come right at 9:00." I didn't look him in the eye when I said this last part. I looked down at his sturdy brown leather shoes.
         "Are you sure?"
         "Yeah, I'm sure. You don't have to wait, she'll be here."
         "Only if you're sure," he said, nodding and turning to face me directly. I always thought he looked a bit like John Denver – the same glasses, a similar shaped face, the same haircut.
Later in 8th grade, he would ask me how I got the large bruise that covered the left side of my face, and I lied then too -- only that time, I don't think that he believed me.
         "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. She'll be here soon, I'm sure of it."
         Before he turned on his comfortable shoes and walked home, he told me to come and knock on his door if my mom didn't come soon after all, and I agreed that I would. He probably even poked his head out of his front room window to see if I was there. Knowing that he would, I decided to leave after only a few more minutes. My face turned hot again at the thought of Mr. Lark seeing me wait there for my mother who wasn't coming at all.
I walked with no rush down Elm, the last lit street in town. I was still hoping to match her headlights with the ones from my memory, and once I turned down Oak street and walked past the last row of lit houses, I would have to make my way down the long stretch of road in the dark -- no sidewalks, no street lamps, nothing but the cold night air and the sound of crickets, and the occasional heart racing rustle in the blackberry bushes that lined one side of the road. It's only a little field mouse, I told myself each time I jumped at a sound. As I rounded the bend on Oak Street, the light from the houses faded behind me. My breath caught in my throat as my eyes worked hard to adjust to the darkness. It wasn't until I exhaled that I realized I had been holding my breath for several paces. Still hoping my mom might remember that she was supposed to pick me up, thinking that she might have a good explanation for being late, I looked for headlights coming my way from down the road, but not a single car passed by on the long, dark stretch. Now more scared than anything, I tried not to think about the rustling sounds of the tall grasses and trees on the hillside along the road, and kept my eyes focused on the streetlight at the end of the long stretch of unlit road -- the corner of Oak and Bodenhammer Lane. My house on Box Factory Road was just beyond that lit corner. I worried about tripping over large rocks or dirt clods, or turning my ankle in an uneven dip in the shoulder. I worried that something would jump from the blackberry bushes to get me. But if I kept up my quick and steady pace, I would be there in about three or four minutes.
         Once at Box Factory Road, I was no longer scared or ashamed that I been left to walk home alone in the dark. I was angry. Trudging up the driveway to my house, I had no idea what I was going to say or do, once I got inside.
         My mom was in the kitchen at the sink getting a glass of water.
         "Michelle!" she said, looking very surprised to see me.
         "You were supposed to pick me up and hour ago," I said, pushing the door hard behind me.
         "Oh, Michelle," she said, smiling stupidly.
         "What's so funny?" I shouted and marched to my room.
         I let the trap door to the attic bedroom that I shared with my sister drop with a thud. My sister, asleep in her bed, on her side of the A-frame, stirred from the noise but didn't open her eyes. I stood frozen in place, watching, not daring to make another sound.
My throat tight, I exhaled, glad to not have woken or disturbed her dreaming, her long blond brown hair a mess over her pillow, her innocence. But I wanted to go to her and touch her cheek, to pull the blankets up to her chin and lay down beside her.
I went to my side of the room instead. 

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